Five Themes of Geography Explained

Caitlin Dempsey


The Five Themes of Geography started out as a framework for making geography accessible to kids from kindergarten to high school. They describe an easy, effective means for parents and educators to teach children about the concept of geography, and how it applies to nature, civilization, and more.

Though these themes have been replaced by the 1994 National Geographical Standards, they still represent an easy, useful way to teach kids about geography.


The first theme is Location.

Location is actually best broken up into two subcategories- absolute location, and relative location.

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Absolute location describes the location of an area based on agreed upon standards like latitude and longitude, or a postal address. Knowing a place’s absolute location allows it to be located from anywhere, regardless of the surrounding area.

Map showing the relative location of Oklahoma in the United States.
Map showing the location of Oklahoma in the United States. Map created using Natural Earth data.

Relative location describes the location of an area based on its connection to other places, like landmarks. Knowing a place’s relative location allows it to be located easily once its relative area is known.

Saying a place is located at a specific set of latitude and longitude coordinates gives its absolute location. Saying it is located five miles north of a lake, or ten minutes outside of a town, gives its relative location.


The second theme is Place.

Place differs from location in that is describes an area based on its physical characteristics, including human-influenced features, rather than its physical location.

Physical characteristics include things like its biome or overall geographical environment- whether it’s a jungle, beach, or mountain. Human-influenced features include cultural designations like the predominant ethnic or religious group in an area.

The Amazonian rainforest is a place designation, since it describes a geographical area based on the physical environment of an area.

View of Tapajós National Forest.
Tapajós National Forest in the Amazon near Santarém, Brazil. Photo: Dennis Dye, USGS. Public domain.

Human-Environment Interaction

The third theme is Human-Environment Interaction.

This teaches how humans adapt to and change their environment to suit their needs. Practices like irrigation, farming, damming, and other human actions that impact the physical features of an area are all instances of human-environment interaction.

Midwest streams flow through intensive row cropping. Photo: Peter Van Metre, USGS. Public domain.
Midwest streams flow through intensive row cropping. Photo: Peter Van Metre, USGS. Public domain.

A good example of this is the way that early cultures tended to settle along rivers, or on deltas. Without paved roads and irrigation, waterways provided a fast, easy means of transportation, and a steady supply of food.

Migration and Movement

The fourth theme is Migration and Movement.

This theme covers the way that human populations move across the world, including migration and settlement patterns, logistics, and a society’s infrastructure.

Roads, telephone lines, and trade routes are all examples of ways that human movement is influenced by geography. The roads built by the Romans, or the Triangular Trade Route used for slave, sugar, and rum trading during the Colonial era, are examples of how geography has influenced the pattern of human movement.

A picture of Thurmond Depot and railroad bridge, West Virginia.
Thurmond Depot and railroad bridge. Photo: NPS/Louise McLaughlin, public domain.


The final theme is Region.

This theme teaches how mankind breaks up the geography of a place into manageable pieces. Though regions are artificial constructs, they are very useful when it comes to describing geography in terms of biomes, cultural areas, socioeconomic areas, habitats, or other designations.

Region doesn’t have a useful place when it comes to locating or mapping a geographical area, but is a huge help when it comes to comprehension- though telling someone an area is located in the Middle East won’t be much use when it comes to finding it, it can tell them about the very general features of the land, cultural and religious affiliations of the people, and other characteristics that a map cannot.

National Geography Standards

The Five Themes of Geography have been supplanted by the National Geography Standards, which include eighteen standards for things students should know in order for them to be considered knowledgeable about geography.

These are build on the five basic themes, but have expanded criteria for determining how well students grasp the knowledge they are presented.

For example, Location requires them to understand how to use maps, atlases, and other tools; how to develop mental maps to understand geographical, political, and environmental information; and how to analyze the distribution of biomes, people, and places around the world.

The Five Themes of Geography are Still Useful

The Five Themes of Geography are a way to give school-aged children a coherent framework for learning about geography.

They allow them to learn how to use concrete devices like latitude and longitude, maps, and atlases to locate specific places, as well as how to develop mental maps of their world, and all of the people and places in it.

Though the themes have effectively been replaced, they still have value when it comes to instilling children with a working knowledge of geography.

Related Resources on Geography

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.